Thousands Denied Jobless Aid Under New Florida Law
By: the National Employment Law Project
Complaint to U.S. Labor Secretary Says Florida Barriers Are Nation’s Most Severe and Violate Federal Law
FLORIDA—New data confirm that unemployed workers in Florida face more obstacles to getting jobless assistance than in any other state, as detailed in a new complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Labor. At a time when numerous states are trying to cut unemployment insurance and other safety net programs, new layers of bureaucratic and technological hurdles recently put in place by Florida set an alarming precedent for other states to follow, even as unemployment in Florida and around the nation remains high.
“Florida’s revised procedures make it just about as difficult as possible for unemployed workers to access unemployment insurance now,” said Valory Greenfield, staff attorney at Florida Legal Services. “The effect is that the state is blocking workers from accessing help they are qualified for and twisting the knife in the state’s ailing economy. Nowhere in the country is it this hard to get help when you lose a job.”
The changes implemented by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO), which include a 45-question exam and the elimination of telephone claims-filing—the method most widely used in most states—create unprecedented barriers to unemployment insurance that violate Section 303(a)(1) of the Social Security Act, attorneys at the National Employment Law Project and Florida Legal Services argued in a letter sent to U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis last Friday. Where federal law requires states to “establish methods of administration reasonably calculated to insure payment of benefits when due,” new data indicates that Florida’s claim-filing procedures do not comply.
U.S. Labor Department records reveal that the percentage of jobless workers in Florida who actually receive state unemployment insurance (UI) is lower than anywhere else in the country. Florida’s recipiency rate for state jobless aid fell to just 15 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011.
Florida’s law (HB 7005) called for changes to UI claim-filing that appeared largely procedural—for example, the elimination of phone filing, an assessment of worker skills, and required work-search documentation submitted electronically. As soon as these changes were implemented on August 1, 2011, however, the adverse impact on unemployed workers claiming benefits became immediately apparent.
- Between August 1, 2011 and April 14, 2012, Florida’s DEO reports that 43,680 claimants were denied benefits specifically because they did not complete the initial skills review. The “individual skills review” is a 45-question online exam that tests math, reading and research skills and must be completed before a worker’s first unemployment check can be issued. The skills review is linked to the initial application for benefits and adds an average 45 minutes to the claim-filing process.
- The first quarter of 2012 saw an increase of more than 200 percent over the year before in the number of unemployed workers denied benefits for “non-separation“ reasons, i.e., failure to meet procedural reporting requirements related to proving availability for work, work search and completion of the skills assessment. There were 61,128 denials in the first quarter of 2012 versus 19,676 denials in the first quarter of 2011.
- February 2012 was the first month that less than half of new applications for unemployment insurance in Florida resulted in benefits (49.1 percent), compared to 70.7 percent nationwide. That 21.6 percentage gap is the widest it has ever been, despite the fact that the Florida’s unemployment rate is still well above the national rate.
“This complaint is not challenging Florida’s right to operate an unemployment insurance program that already pays some of the lowest benefits in the country. Rather, this complaint is saying that Florida—in fact, no state—is free to erect procedural barriers that keep otherwise eligible workers from accessing unemployment insurance,” said George Wentworth, senior staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project.
“States receive federal grants to administer their unemployment insurance programs, and one of the conditions for those grants is that they have procedures in place that facilitate the prompt payment of benefits to workers who meet basic eligibility criteria. Florida’s new procedures force workers who already satisfy the basic eligibility requirements to jump through additional hoops in the form of complex online transactions. Thousands of workers are being unfairly disqualified as a result. We are asking the U.S. Department of Labor to investigate and find that Florida’s procedures are in violation of federal law,” Wentworth said.
The National Employment Law Project is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts research and advocates on issues affecting low-wage and unemployed workers. For more about NELP, visit www.nelp.org.